Is NBC Coverage of Paralympics Shortchanging US Viewers?

Commentary by Shoshanna Rutemiller

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 28. TOMORROW the Olympic torch will be re-lit. And although the cauldron will lose several of its original 205 petals — representing each nation participating in the 2012 London Olympics — 166 golden flutes will rise up in flames, signaling the start of the London Paralympic Games, running through September 9.

The Paralympic opening ceremonies will undoubtedly be an incredible spectacle, hopefully on par with the Olympic opening ceremonies. Creators Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings are promoting the event as “…both spectacular and deeply human.” As for the entire sporting competition, Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee, says that, “All the ingredients are there for the best Paralympic Games.” But have spectators in the United States already lost interest?

Since its inception in Rome, Italy in 1960, the Paralympic Games have struggled to achieve coverage and media attention comparable to its Olympic counterpart. And while London 2012 has seen improvements in the amount of coverage given to the world's best Paralympic athletes, the United States has been receiving some serious flack for its half-hearted tip-of-the-hat to its Paralympic athletes.

“Some people feel that North America leads on everything, and on this they don't. And it's about time they caught up,” said Craven in a recent statement. Extensive broadcast coverage packages will be run in the United Kingdom, France and numerous other European, Asian, and South American countries. NBC announced its U.S. coverage would only include video content on the U.S. Paralympics YouTube channel and five and a half hours of pre-recorded coverage airing on broadcast television.

Seems a bit sparse. Soon after the announcement by NBC, the U.S. Olympic Committee congratulated itself on the accomplishment, saying that, “NBC's expanded coverage meant that Americans will see more of the Games than ever before.” After reading the criticisms by Craven, it appears we have a trans-continental disconnect.

Let's be honest. The measly U.S. NBC Paralympic package pales in comparison to the hundreds of hours devoted to its Olympic coverage several weeks ago. It's a pretty sad sentiment, when one takes note of some of the incredible Paralympic athletes that will represent the United States in London. Shouldn't we honor these athletes, whose inspirational accomplishments tug at the heartstrings of Americans? NBC peppered its Olympic coverage with come-from-behind underdog stories. What better place to look for a story than amongst the wounded war veterans? The athletes who overcame debilitating physical and neurological deformities to earn the title of “best in the world”?

At the commencement of the swimming events on August 30, 20-year-old double-amputee Jessica Long will vie for additional golden hardware in the pool. She has already won seven Paralympic gold medals, first as a 12-year-old at the 2004 Athens (where she won three) and then at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics (winning an additional four). She currently holds 20 Paralympic world records. As a 15-year-old in 2007, Long became the first Paralympic athlete to win the coveted Amateur Athletic Union's Sullivan Award. It should be noted that she was nominated alongside, and beat out, Michael Phelps for the award. Any mention of Phelps draws a firestorm of media attention. So why shouldn't Long, who also received ESPY awards in 2007 and 2012, earn the right for her swims to be broadcast in full?

From a historical context, a predecessor to the Paralympic Games was created in 1948 to help rehabilitate injured British veterans. It coincided with the 1948 London Olympics, and was called the International Wheelchair Games. Today, the Paralympics has expanded to 4,200 athletes from 166 countries, with five major disability classifications for athletes. 20 of the athletes representing the U.S. are disabled war veterans, and six were injured in combat.

“The veterans are having a huge impact. It pulls people's hearts. And the government is putting a lot of money into sports facilities for them,” said Christine Tinberg via, founder of Bicycling Blind Los Angeles. With so much attention given to returning veterans, broadcast networks should jump at the opportunity to showcase war heroes at the pinnacle of sport. But still, there is a media disconnect.

Veteran Navy Lieutenant Bradley Snyder will be representing the U.S. in London. While deployed in Afghanistan in September of 2011, Snyder was blinded after an IED exploded. The former Naval Academy swim team captain qualified to compete in seven swimming events at the Paralympic Games. The U.S. Paralympic Brochure sums it up best, by saying: “September 2012 will mark not only the anniversary of his accident, but also just how far he's come in one year's time.” Don't tell me that's not a headline story.

Look, it's not my intention to harp on the United States. It is true that we have made progress in the attention given the Paralympic Games. Big-time corporations, such as Visa and General Electric, are featuring Paralympic athletes in promotional commercials.
Yes, NBC has scaled up its coverage from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The entire world has come leaps and bounds from the days when the Paralympics were just an “afterthought.”

But with 2.4 million tickets sold for this year's Paralympic Games, somebody is obviously interested in watching them. I think we, as Americans, are far from being able to pat ourselves on the back for a “Games” well covered.